To the Brink and Back: French Revolution

Spartacist No. 12, September-October 1968

The immediate origins of the French struggles can be traced to student activity at Nanterre and the Sorbonne, but these student rebellions had revolutionary significance only insofar as they were the spark which set off a conflagration within the working class. It was the social crisis, not the student movement, which led to the workers’ occupation of factories, the paralyzing of French commerce and industry and the largest and most powerful general strike in history.

The struggle is reminiscent of the Hungarian workers’ revolt of 1956, although in France it did not result in the spontaneous generation of workers’ councils. Thus, the elements of dual power were not clearly present. But both exemplified, in laboratory situations, the counterrevolutionary nature of Stalinism, just as in both cases struggles on the part of students and intellectuals struck a chord within the working class. This has become almost a classic model of social upheaval in our era.

Revolutionary Leadership Lacking

There was a period of about a week, the high-tide of which was 29 May, when France was in the grip of a pre-revolutionary situation. The initiative was with the workers; it was within their grasp to take state power and establish the proletarian dictatorship. The old order and the Gaullist government were incapable of ruling, incapable of imposing their order on the subordinate classes or of solving the social crises tearing apart the nation. General discontent among parts of these subordinate strata--students, some farmers, the urban petty-bourgeoisie--was acute. The French state, racked by its own internal contradictions, the crisis of bourgeois order and far-reaching discontent, was for the period of a week more fragile than at any other time in a generation.

Yet the situation did not reach the point of dual power, which is characteristic of all revolutionary crises. In a few cases, factory committees, replacing the existing representation in the several trade-union federations, were elected by the striking workers, but this embryonic form of workers’ councils was limited to perhaps ten factories. The comités d’action which sprang up all over France were essentially district or neighborhood groups, not based specifically on the working class in the enterprises.

What was missing in France was a revolutionary party which could have raised the necessary demands to take the situation from a general strike to dual power, to shatter the control of the Confederation Générale de Travail (CGT) over the strike through the building of workers’ councils. That the revolutionary French workers were unable to take power was principally, although not solely, due to the treachery of the French Communist Party (PCF).

Communist Party Sabotages

The PCF leaders, along with the CGT, their trade union arm, did everything in their power to derail the movement. They attempted to split the initial student-worker alliance at the factory gates, slandering the students as "provocateurs." In their patriotic fervor they German-baited Cohn-Bendit. They attempted to steer the whole thrust of the demonstrations, strikes and factory occupations into narrow, exclusively economic demands. They established back-to-work movements. They misdirected the struggle back into the parliamentary swamp. They allowed De Gaulle a breathing space, allowed him to retrieve the initiative and to rally back to himself wavering middle-class elements, to ally himself with the military command and a whole bloc of proto-fascist elements. The PCF’s betrayals in May led directly to De Gaulle’s victory at the polls on 23 June.

The PCF, long the most "Stalinized" party in Western Europe, has in its Brezhnevite transfiguration maintained the same rotten policies it upheld in 1936, 1945 and 1947. Through the lack of a revolutionary communist alternative, the PCF and CGT have until now managed to maintain the loyalty of the French workers. The French events demonstrate once more the necessity of building an alternative for the communist workers to the PCF--that is, a communist party which will honor its program and fight for state power in its own right. It is not enough that this party break formally with the PCF or with "Khrushchevite revisionism"; it must also break with the methods and policies of Stalinism. What is needed is not another left-talking agency, but a Leninist-Trotskyist party. Only the kind of party which won the 1917 October Revolution in Russia will be able to get to the roots of the PCF’s betrayals.

De Gaulle Cracks Down

The government’s crackdown on all the major organizations to the left of the PCF becomes an even more serious threat in this context. To date, there have been eleven working-class and student groups ordered dissolved--most of them, according to the bourgeois press, "Trotskyite." These proscribed organizations are forbidden to publish their propaganda; militants who continue their work are subject to prison terms.

The ban on these organizations is a fierce attack on the civil liberties of French workers and students. It is a class-determined ban: while the government illegalized the French left, it was at the same time releasing from jail extreme rightists, proto-fascists and the conspirators of the attempted paramilitary coup d’état of 1958. And what makes the ban especially damaging now is that it is the militants of many of the banned organizations who best appreciate the pernicious role of the PCF and can draw the necessary conclusions.

Both the Gaullists and the PCF benefit from these decrees; to assume that the PCF was not an accomplice to the crackdown is to stretch credibility beyond the breaking point. It has been acknowledged that from the beginning of the crisis the CGT leadership was in secret, daily contact with the government. At any rate, neither L’Humanité nor The Worker has to date said one word in regard to these bans.

Proletarian Revolution vs. New Leftism

Many "new" ideas about revolution have surfaced within the American left in the 1960’s, and France offers us a laboratory in which to test them. Since so much of late has been made of Herbert Marcuse, considered the mentor of European radical youth, his ideas are of central importance. In one or another variant, his theories permeate the writings and speeches of practically the whole constellation of the New Left "heroes"--Mao, Guevara, Castro, Fanon, Debray, Paul Sweezy, Lin Piao, C. Wright Mills.

Marcuse’s thesis is that the working class has become socially moribund and obsolete. This thesis, an attempt to explain the twenty-year hiatus in revolutionary workers’ struggles in the post-war period, dovetailed quite nicely with the liberal capitalist line that "post-industrial" society was sufficiently flexible to comfortably integrate the working class and dispense with class struggle. This theory deepened petty-bourgeois contempt for the workers and gave impetus to all kinds of elitist conceptions of historical change. By shifting the blame onto the victims of these policies of non-struggle rather than onto the perpetrators, onto the workers rather than the assorted bureaucrats who mislead them, this theory dismisses the workers as a revolutionary class and searches instead for a new "vanguard agency." In favor of Mao’s peasants or Guevara’s guerillas, the militant of the industrial West is encouraged to become not a revolutionary but a vicarious enthusiast of "other" forces.

The French workers did more than shake up French bourgeois society: their struggle rendered obsolete the whole carefully constructed myth--Marcuse, liberalism, the New Left and its heroes. The "bought-off" workers in action, the strikes, factory occupations, the red flag everywhere, the workers’ drive for power and their rejection of the concessions exacted from the terrified French bourgeoisie--these events show concretely where the social agency for change is to be found in our era.

Role of the French Left

The pro-Chinese groupings seemed out of their depth in the complex situation. The question facing the working class was the fracturing of the CGT’s power, a situation in which the "thoughts of Chairman Mao" must have appeared even more gloriously irrelevant than usual. The Maoist students understood the necessity of involving themselves in the workers’ struggles and managed to build themselves an industrial base, but seemed to have no idea what to do with it. But whatever they did must have had little support from their chosen leaders in Peking; the Chinese themselves consider De Gaulle a "progressive" anti-imperialist. The political work of the Paris anarchist students appears largely to have consisted in "confronting" the police. In three weeks they moved from their traditional concept of super-individuality to participating in the demonstrations in the manner of a super-organized lockstep action squad.

There are three distinct "Trotskyist" tendencies operating in France, all presently banned. Two groups are affiliated with assorted "Fourth Internationals," the Organization Communiste Internationale (OCI) with the Healyite International Committee, and the Parti Communiste Internationale (PCI) with the Pabloite United Secretariat. Also associated with the Pabloites is the Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionaire (JCR), a left split from the PCF student federation. The third tendency, the Union Communiste, which publishes Voix Ouvrière (Workers Voice), is organizationally independent of these "Internationals" but has fraternal relations with groups in other countries, among them the Spartacist League in the U.S.

Healyites Screw Up

Despite attempts by the British Newsletter and the U.S. Bulletin (Healy’s English-language propaganda apparatus) to make it appear that the OCI was leading the entire rebellion, its presence in the working class was limited to a few important factory concentrations; its influence in the radical student movement was non-existent. Over-reacting against "student vanguardism," a real problem, the French Healyites went so far as to oppose student struggle at the very moment the students were building the barricades which triggered the whole revolt.

This reaction was objectively defeatist. After the barricades-building episode many of their rank and filers functioned in the various comités d’action as individuals disgusted with their group’s policies. The OCI did not even have a propaganda stall at the Sorbonne (although every other left organization did).

Pabloite Revisionism

The Pabloites were limited in a more subtle manner, deriving from their estrangement from the working class and a concept of "student vanguardism." Thus, within the student milieu they played an active role, with some increase in influence and leadership. But central to their weakness was their inability to break out of the student arena. Their isolation was of course not accidental but stemmed from tactical and theoretical shortcomings of many years’ duration, characterized chiefly by a renunciation of the necessity for revolutionary leadership and a consequent adaptation to existing petty-bourgeois and Stalinist leaderships. This revisionist trend has been codified in a number of notorious resolutions on the part of the United Secretariat which declared that the "epicenter" of revolutionary struggle had shifted to the colonial world, and away from the industrial working class.

Their line is only a capitulation, decked out in "revolutionary" verbiage, to a variant of the Marcuse-Mao-Guevara thesis preaching contempt for the workers while looking about for other "agencies." That this theory has borne little fruit has not dissuaded them from their search. In practice the Pabloites have done little more than participate in popular front "peace" demonstrations and lend themselves as a left cover for Stalinists, pacifists and liberals.

And so it happened that, precisely when the French workers went into motion and even a small combat-oriented Marxist nucleus could have by example alone wielded enormous influence, the Pabloites were outside the trade union movement. And then when the issue was posed of linking the students with the workers, it came to little more than an expression of solidarity rather than pointing the way to the assembling of the communist party.

Voix Ouvrière

The Voix Ouvrière comrades are the only organization claiming to be Trotskyist which has carried out a working-class line. Initially, their cadres were concentrated in the factories to the extent that they lacked an adequate base within student and petty-bourgeois arenas. They were, however, able to establish permanent liaison committees with the Pabloite organizations, enabling them to coordinate their intervention with the radical students of the JCR. Such increase in contact between these organizations may in the future allow the V.O. comrades to aid Pabloite youth in breaking away from the revisionism in their movement and orienting decisively toward a revolutionary proletarian perspective.

However, the axis upon which the V.O.-Pabloite unity of action is based is a false one. The joint statement called upon "all organizations claiming to be Trotskyist to join in this move." The V.O. comrades feel the recent events constitute "the French 1905." Let us remember that the sequel to the 1905 Russian Revolution was a unification of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks! It took Lenin several years to break this over-fraternal unity. What has been pointed up in France by the latest CP-CGT betrayal is not the need for a "Trotskyist regroupment" but the need for a new revolutionary party based on the vindicated Bolshevik program, uniting all those, even from such tendencies as the Maoists and syndicalists, who stand in favor of workers’ committees of power. We hope that V.O., the French Bolsheviks, have not been disoriented as were the Russians in 1905.

British and U.S. Left

The Healyite organizations appear incapable of learning any of the lessons of France. As of this writing they seem inclined simply to brazen it out with wild claims. A Socialist Labour League congress passed a resolution containing these grotesqueries:

"Congress contemptuously rejects the allegations of cowardice leveled against our comrades as baseless… The International Committee of the Fourth International and its French section is the only one that has prepared theoretically and organizationally for this crisis… . The general strike called by the CGT on May 13, as a result of the intervention of our comrades … is adequate proof of the correctness of their policies and their courage."
(our emphasis)

Further evidence that according to the Healyites all you need to make the revolution is a printing press and a lot of brass!

The Pabloite press has smothered itself in a general line of: "If the French (or any other) revolution hasn’t yet taken place it’s all the fault of the Stalinists." This serves only as a convenient--if by now rather boring--scapegoat. The Stalinists have been functioning as agents of the bourgeoisie at least since 1933; this has been codified in the Trotskyist movement at least since the 1938 Transitional Program. Yet the central premise of Pabloism is that the Stalinist parties are subject to "left" pressure to such a degree that they can at times play a revolutionary role. Thus the Pabloite co-thinkers of the USec in the U.S. (Socialist Workers Party-Young Socialist Alliance) find themselves caught in a classic centrist trap.

On the one hand, the Militant has done an accurate and enthusiastic job reporting the French revolt although seriously flawed by "student vanguard" substitutionism and a vacuous position on the need for the Trotskyist party. And in New York and the Bay Area the SWP-YSA did praiseworthy jobs in building united fronts defending the outlawed French organizations. On the other hand, their pervasive opportunism and capitulation to bureaucratic forces, nationalism, student vanguardism, etc., had already led them to give up on the workers and the vanguard party. The Pabloite press now applauds itself for its formal, generally ignored "Trotskyism," but its "Third Worldism" has certainly done nothing to lay the groundwork for the French events or to push them towards victory.

Trotskyism Vindicated

For those who held to a position of consistent Trotskyism, the French revolt was a tremendous vindication. For the revisionists it was only a setback, an exposé and a tragedy. How can anyone seriously committed to the position that the "epicenter" of world revolution has shifted away from the industrial working class to the colonial world see the French workers’ uprising as anything but an embarrassment? They can only try to straddle, like one Bay Area YSAer’s picket-line slogan, "Che Viva in France," or SWP leader Fred Halstead’s statement that "The colonial revolutionaries no longer fight alone." These incidents alone should raise some interesting questions in the minds of serious revolutionaries still in the SWP.

One best aids the French communist workers not by tail-ending their rebellion but by furthering revolutionary struggle here. One helps them by building, both in France and here, sections of an international communist party which will take power. One only harms the French revolutionary movement by refusing to learn its lessons.

Posted: 14 July 2005